Ald. Leslie Hairston

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) is focusing her immediate response to the coronavirus pandemic on ensuring her constituents have food, housing and supplies for their children's continuing education. She said any comprehensive public policy response has to address the socioeconomic factors behind the disease's disproportionate impact on Black people.

While her office, 2325 E. 71st St., 773-324-5555, is physically closed, Hairston said her staff is remotely fielding calls for masks, hand sanitizer and food as well as for assistance getting unemployment insurance, government grants, and city sticker, permit parking and license plate renewal, especially for constituents who lack the digital literacy to access services online.

"There are resources available, but the need is great," she said. "That means we work with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for some of the businesses. We've got daycares; some of them are still operating, and there are certain forms they need to fill out."

Asked to describe the current nature of her work, Hairston said, "It's really busy. I might start the day with a conference call with the mayor, followed by another two-hour conference call with the other aldermen and various city departments," from the police to Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications to the Department of Public Health.

"I want people to know that we are actively working, that we are there to serve them, and we will get through this," she said.

Hairston said she has been in regular communication with CPS CEO Janice K. Jackson, particularly about the availability of meals for children throughout the shutdown. (In Hyde Park-Kenwood, meals are distributed at Ray School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave.) She also referenced communication with the University of Chicago Medical Center and working with nurses to ensure supplies of personal protective equipment.

"I've been talking with the nurses who were concerned. They reached out, and being a go-between between the nurses and the University of Chicago to tell them the equipment that they felt that they needed, things that they needed in order to do their job safely," Hairston said. "There was a hiccup. This is new: things had gotten stuck in customs, so you're waiting for a shipment to arrive. In the meantime, people are trying to do the best with what they have."

Marti Smith, the Midwest Director of the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United union, said she did not know of Hairston's involvement. The University of Chicago Medical Center did not respond to a request for comment.

Hairston, who has been an alderman since 1999, said she has never seen a situation as grave as the current one, saying it surpasses the Great Recession a decade ago.

"We have never seen anything like this; we have never seen something that is invisible and that can be a silent killer. This is something totally different than a real estate crash," she said. "It's times like these that the leaders lead. We rise to the occasion, we figure it out. We keep working — that's what we do."

While focusing foremost on constituent services and linking them with care and assistance, Hairston said she and other Black elected officials are mindful of the distinct toll the pandemic is taking on African Americans, whose rates of infection and death outpace the percentage of the population they comprise. 

Identified co-morbidities such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes and other chronic illnesses are especially high among Black people, who also suffer from poorer access to health care and environmental affects that lead to worse outcomes. Earlier this week, the Tribune reported that 68% of the people who have died from COVID-19 in Chicago are Black.

"We are the ones who are negatively impacted. The problem has been decades of neglect at our communities. This is not new," she said, comparing the under-the-surface strife that the virus has exposed to realizations about the extent of police misconduct towards African Americans once smartphones able to take videos became widespread. "And it's not unique to Chicago, either. It just puts it front and center."

Going forward, Hairston said the government needs to fundamentally address Black levels of unemployment and housing, though she did not know of any specific legislative initiatives on those issues in City Council or any plans from Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Hairston did say that Lightfoot "is ready to take it that route" to a greater degree than past mayoral administrations.

She said her daily calls with various state and local government agencies and lawmakers will eventually yield consensus and data-informed policy-making in response to the pandemic.

"I'm sure I will have some," Hairston said when asked about policy specifics she would like to see, "but right now, we're trying to keep food in people's homes, in their mouths. We're trying to make sure that their kids have the educational supplies that they need to continue. We're trying to make sure that people have adequate housing. We are trying to make sure that we are doing the most that we can to try to keep some kind of normalcy in this abnormal situation."

Hairston plans to resume her monthly ward meetings on Tuesday, April 28, through over videoconferencing. In the meantime, she encouraged constituents to stay strong amid the crisis.

"We are strong, and we will get through this," she said. "This is doable, and this is within out ability to do it. I have to say, people have called to see how they can be helpful. People are really trying to help uplift others in this situation and try to find ways to mitigate the economic impact."

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